Calle De Los Negros, the Wickedest Street in the American West
Updated: Aug 28, 2021
Beneath the pavement of present-day Los Angeles lies a foreboding secret. Within sight of the festive Olvera Street, there was once a place so infamous for its evil that the city’s only solution was to obliterate its very existence.
*The gabled roof in the distance is the 2-storied Lugo Adobe. - Photo credit to University of Southern California Libraries and California Historical Society archives.
Pueblo de Los Angeles - September 8th, 1855
Sheriff’s Deputy William Johnston pushed through the crowd assembled in the plaza. It was Saturday night and the town was alive with gaily attired Californios, Sonorans, Indians, ‘Gringos’ from the States, Chileans, Celestials, Kanaka sailors, various Europeans and a mix of wanderers from other points round’ the world. A pair of vaqueros dashed down the streets in a horse race. One shifted to the side and with a sweeping motion, snatched up an errant rooster by the neck. The hapless gamecock let out a muffled shriek with thrashing wings as it succumbed to the shock. A pair of rye-soaked Appalachian Mountaineers raised their hands in applause offering “Four-bits if you give us that roaster o’ yourn and I'll wager a quarter-eagle[i] if'n you kin do that twicet…”.
Many in this crowd were merrymaking to a 'soaky state of gutterdom' before heading north to the gold fields. Others were in Los Angeles to buy beef, grains, wine or fresh produce of the local ranchos. Some were fleeing the vigilance committees and arrest warrants from the northern counties while others had come north from Mexico for similar reasons. All this made Los Angeles a very colorful and dangerous place. Past the Ocampo adobe was Calle de los Negros, a small street that roared of wickedness and wild deeds. Every vice was worshiped here in what may have been the toughest, most dangerous street in the world.
*Note, the many shops and apartments along the eastern gallery of 'Negro Alley'.- Photo credit to University of Southern California Libraries and California Historical Society archives.
Upon entering Calle de los Negros, there was a cacophony of languages mixed with the unearthly howls of drunkenness clashing with the music of the various Spanish, Indian, Yankee and other nations. Each of the gambling houses rang with a constant jingle of silver dollars and large gold ‘slugs'[ii]. The sounds of trumpets and guitars along with a spirited ‘fiddle’ and ‘maroma’ [iii] rope dances rang above the din. From one doorway of a drinking shop came the sound of wind instruments, or a dulcimer, and zither. From another ‘shop’ rolled the droning cords of a Hurdy-gurdy[iv]. The air was a haze of burnt tallow, whale oil, roast beef, and tobacco smoke which sometimes masked the smell of horse refuse and night soil[v]. Brandy, rye, and aguardiente were dispensed from clinking bottles to the unruly mob smiling[vi] at the bars of the many saloons, gambling hells, cribs and brothels.
As Johnston approached Le Franco’s store of ‘Provisions Groceries & Liquors’ he saw two old drunks struggle before a knife flashed. Was that a pistol shot muffled in his coat? One man disappeared into the night as the other dropped his knife staggering across the street to collapse at Beaudry's Sewing Machine Shop. Johnston hurried after the gunman but lost sight of him at the zanja. Making haste back to the stricken man, Johnston found that he had already expired from his wound. Looking down, Johnston was standing on a sidewalk lavishly sprinkled with the blood of a pierced heart. How it contrasted in the lamplight with the white sign that advertised ‘100 lb. sacks, Tents, Hoses, Ceilings, & Wagon Covers’. A few gathered to see but not that many. It was just another night in Calle de los Negros. Johnston frowned; he was not troubled by what he felt at the moment but rather, what he no longer felt in a place like this.
Los Angeles Plaza Historic District, - 164 Years Later
I walked down Olvera street and through the old Los Angeles plaza passing an assortment of vendors selling their goods while street performers were living the dream one dollar at a time. For a moment, I paused to watch a handful of costumed musicians keeping their culture alive. The scene was alive with the buzz of a busy city with its endless flow of cars, bikes, busses and trucks. Staring up, there were the stoic facades of the historic Pico House in front of me with Vickrey-Brunswig Building, Plaza House and the Old Church to my right. They stand as reminders of this city’s past and of its people. If they could talk, they would recollect a town of dirt streets, the vaquero and the various historic westerners to follow as the pavement grew for automobiles to replace shod hooves. I passed beneath green trees as Aircraft roared overhead through dark storm clouds. A light rain turned leaves an emerald hue in contrast against gray skies and the 19th century masonry. After a short walk across the plaza, I reached the sidewalk along Los Angeles Street. It looked like any other urban boulevard. On the other side is a tree-lined parking lot that should not be so remarkable… but it was. In fact, that’s when I began to see what I came here to find.
As I turned and walked down Los Angeles Street, shadows of times long past flitted like vapors of smoke among the cars. They passed like smoke, indifferent to the pedestrians they passed through. I was tracing the path of William Johnston from my story. Here is where Ricardo Uribe also had his running fight where he received a dozen knife and gunshot wounds but not before leaving a half dozen attackers bloodied, dazed, and prostrate in his wake. It was a place where some of the greatest names of our early times walked and lived. Some of them died right here along with many other faceless individuals now lost in time. Just for a moment, I felt like a ghost passing through ancient walls that no longer stood, taking in sights of long gone shops, card games and other vices as they played out. Looking up, I saw the rafters over the covered boardwalk as I now strolled along the Coronel adobe amid shadows wearing broad brimmed hats and jingling spurs. It did not matter that it has been gone for over a century; for a moment I was there. Evidence of its existence still remain in the earth under layers of pavement beneath my feet. Like a murmur on a breeze, it whispers of a world hidden in history and waiting for its story to be told once more.
*The gabled roof of Lugo Adobe is in the distance. The 1884 firehouse tower is to the left-rear. The Coronel adobe (left) is in a poor state of disrepair and the overhanging eaves have now been removed. - Photo credit to University of Southern California Libraries and California Historical Society archives.
* The left-side of the road and sidewalk is where the Coronel and Ocampo adobes used to stand. The actual 'alley' straddles the far right lane and the sidewalk. Note the Lugo and Del Valle Adobes are also now gone.
Origin and Description of Calle de los Negros
It was called ‘Calle de los Negros’ (alley of the blacks or alley of the dark-skinned) by the Spanish-speaking natives and ‘Negro Alley’ by English-speaking Americans who began to arrive in numbers during the later 1840s. A more vulgar name ‘Nig--r Alley’* was used in common reference to this place as well. The alley is alleged to have received its name from Jose Antonio Carillo in the early 1840s as a reference to the dark complexion of the then, affluent Californio families who lived there.[vii] Early accounts state this small street southeast of the old plaza to have been built in the early 1800s and not be more than 500 feet in length. Having walked the alley between existing landmarks, it was closer to about 285-300 feet in length.
The long adobes on either side of the street were made up of numerous small rooms and apartments. These hosted a variety of junk shops, drinking establishments, stores of various items, blacksmiths and other tradesmen for what was the largest pueblo in California at the time. In the decades before the Mexican-American war, the alley was reputed to have been a place of intrigue during California’s many revolutions. However, all that which cannot be proven beyond hearsay is consigned to live on only in romanticized conjecture.
Following the Mexican War, frontiersmen and military veterans made up the majority of Americans present in the Pueblo. By 1849, the gold rush was bringing thousands of fortune seekers over the Southern Emigrant Trail across the southwestern deserts, through San Diego, and up into Los Angeles on their way north. The majority of these Americans were young, single men who were heavily armed with money to burn. Calle de los Negros had an El Dorado of its own in liquor, gambling, and every pleasure suitable to a new generation of young Canaanites.
By the early-1850s Calle de los Negros reached its prime in lawlessness, rapine, and murder. Entering the alley from the south, you would see the long Coronel Adobe to the left. It faced 'Aliso' (Arcadia) street and ran for half the length of the alley. From there, the Ocampo adobe would run all the way to Ocampo Plaza where you would be facing the Del Valle Adobe at the end of the little street. On the right-hand side coming from the south, you would have passed La Aguila de Oro (The Golden Eagle saloon & gambling house), then La Prietita (a brothel) followed by a battery of small shops and cribs to the end of the alley.
*This is the entrance from the Plaza showing the Del Valle adobe to the left and the Ocampo adobe to the right. - Photo credit to University of Southern California Libraries and California Historical Society archives.
*The line of cars in the parking lot mark the location where the storefronts of Calle de los Negro's east side used to be.
James. M. Guinn was a Civil War veteran who lived in Southern California from the 1870s until the end of his life noted this of the place in his 1915 book ‘A History of California’:
“Of the historic streets of Los Angeles that have disappeared before the march of improvements none perhaps was so widely known in early days as the one called Calle de Los Negros in Castilian Spanish, but Ni--er alley in vulgar United States. Whether its ill-omened name was given from the dark hue of the dwellers on it or from the blackness of the deeds done in it the records do not tell. Before the American conquest it was a respectable street, and some of the wealthy rancheros dwelt on it, but it was not then known as Ni--er alley. It gained its unsavory reputation and name in the flush days of gold mining, between 1849 and 1856. It was a short, narrow street or alley, extending from the upper end of Los Angeles street at Arcadia to the plaza. It was at that time the only street except Main entering the plaza from the south. In length it did not exceed 500 feet, but in wickedness it was unlimited.
On either side it was lined with saloons, gambling hells, dance houses and disreputable dives. It was a cosmopolitan street. Representatives of different races and many nations frequented it. Here the ignoble red man, crazed with aguardiente, fought his battles, the swarthy Sonoran plied his stealthy dagger and the click of the revolver mingled with the clink of gold at the gaming table when some chivalric American felt that his word of "honah" has been impugned. The Calle de Los Negros in the early '50s, when the deaths from violence in Los Angeles were of almost daily occurrence, was the central point from which the wickedness of the city radiated.”
Guinn continued in mentioning the lawlessness and how various “vigilance committees and military organizations” were used to bring some of this chaos to an end. Most notably, The Los Angeles Rangers was a unit formed August 1, 1853 under the command of Capt. A. W. Hope. While officially a militia, the Los Angles Rangers played a role in supplementing the need for additional law and order until better solutions could be obtained. Guinn had more to say on this storied little street.
“The Calle de Los Negros was as black in character as in name. For its length and opportunities, it was the wickedest street on earth. Saloons, dance houses and gambling hells lined its walks and the high tide of its iniquities swept over the Plaza.”
“In 1854 it is said that Los Angeles averaged a homicide for each day of that year. The Plaza borders and the Calle de Los Negros were the principal battlefields where most of the victims bit the dust. The criminal element became bold and defiant; robbers and murderers terrorized the community. Then the law-abiding citizens arose in their might and in the shape of vigilance committees and military organizations put an end to the saturnalia of crime, and to many of the criminals as well. The gallows tree on Fort Hill bore gruesome fruit and the beams over corral gates were sometimes festooned with the hangman's noose. In less than a year twenty-two criminals, bandits, murderers and thieves were hung in accordance with the law or without law, whichever was most convenient or most expeditious; and more than twice that number expatriated themselves for the country's good, and their own. After its purification by hemp, the Old Plaza became a thing of utility, and was made the distributing point for a water system. In 1857 the City Council granted Judge William G. Dryden the right to convey the water from his springs, located on the low ground southeast of where the River Station now is, "over, under and through the streets, lanes, alleys and roads of the city, and distribute it for domestic purposes.”
*1870s lithograph of Old Los Angeles Pueblo showing noteworthy structures nearby.
One of the original members of the Los Angeles Rangers was famed western journalist Horace Bell. He gives a first-hand account of his observations on ‘Negro Alley’ in 1852. Additional accounts may be read in his book, Reminiscences of a Ranger (1881)
From the great gambling house on the plaza (Aleck Gibson’s) we hied us to the classic precincts of the "Calle de los Negros," which was the most perfect and full grown pandemonium that this writer, who had seen the "elephant" before, and has been more than familiar with him under many phases since, has ever beheld.
There were four or five gambling places, and the crowd from the old Coronel building on the Los Angeles street corner to the plaza was so dense that we could scarcely squeeze through. Americans, Spaniards, Indians and foreigners, rushing and crowding along from one gambling house to another, from table to table, all chinking the everlasting eight square $50 pieces up and down in their palms. There were several bands of music of the primitive Mexican-Indian kind, that sent forth most discordant sound, by no means in harmony with the eternal jingle of gold—while at the upper end of the street, in the rear of one of the gambling houses was a Mexican "Maroma" in uproarious confusion. They positively made night hideous with their howlings. Every few minutes a rush would be made, and may be a pistol shot would be heard, and when the confusion incident to the rush would have somewhat subsided, and inquiry made, you would learn that it was only a knife fight between two Mexicans, or a gambler had caught somebody cheating and had perforated him with a bullet. Such things were a matter of course, and no complaint or arrests were ever made. An officer would not have had the temerity to attempt an arrest in "Negro Alley," at that time. I have no hesitation in saying that in the years of 1851, '52 and '53, there were more desperadoes in Los Angeles than in any place on the Pacific coast, San Francisco with its great population not excepted.
*Site of the Bilderrain-Thompson shooting and site of the Chinese Massacre. Calle de los Negros is to the right.- Photo credit to University of Southern California Libraries and California Historical Society archives.
The Chinese Massacre of 1871
One of the darkest chapters of Old West history occurred on October 24, 1871. By that date, a large number of Chinese nationals had built a community in Calle de los Negros. When looking at the few surviving images of the alley at that time, a few ‘Celestial’ residents can be seen. This was an example of a cultural collision with a disastrous outcome. The Chinese population was mostly peasant laborers living under comparatively spartan conditions. They were willing to work for wages lower than what working class whites and Hispanics could afford to support their families on. The Chinese were happy to have the work and did what they could to build a thriving community while sending their wages home to their families in China. There were professionals among them as well. Most noteworthy was Dr. Gene Tung who was well liked among the American community in addition to those of the community in which he lived. The working class whites and Hispanics may have resented the cultural differences of the Chinese but the true threat in their eyes was that these Celestial laborers were taking their jobs and bringing down the wages to a level they could not live on. With tension rising, all that was needed was the right spark to set it all off.
That incident began with a quarrel over a girl between the Nin Yung and Hong Chow Tongs. Chinese Tongs served as a social organization that acquired work for their members and looked out for their needs. They also served as street gangs to protect their members in addition to pursuing their own underworld interests as well. On October 21, 1871, more tong members arrived in Los Angeles from the steamer ‘California’ out of San Francisco. Street fights immediately escalated throughout the following days. On October 23, some arrests were made and Justice Gray then released each of the detained Tong members on bail. Everyone thought that this would put an end to it but trouble quickly resumed.
On Tuesday, October 24th, Police Officer Jesus Bilderrain responded to shots fired at the Coronel Adobe, which had become the hub for the Chinese community in Calle de los Negros. He found a Nin Yung Tong member, Ah Choy dying from a gunshot wound to the throat. Bilderrain pursued two Tong suspects. Shots rang out and Bilderrain was hit in the right shoulder and the right wrist. His 15-year-old brother was wounded in the right leg. Robert Thompson, a friend of Bilderrain came to his assistance. A tong member armed with 2-revolvers killed him at point blank range. Gunfire was soon coming from the windows and doorways of the adobe and multiple people were reputed to have been injured. The petard was lit and violence now exploded out into the street.
The cry went out that Chinese were slaughtering Americans in the streets and an enraged crowd numbering in the hundreds, mostly of armed White and Hispanic residents descended on the Coronel adobe as well as the rest of Chinatown. They stormed the Coronel adobe firing through the doors and windows. A hatchet-wielding Tong member attempted to flee but was chased down by Romo Sortorel who suffered ‘ugly cuts on the hand’ in capturing him. An enraged mob dragged the Tong member to the corral gates at Temple and New High Street where he was promptly lynched.
According to witness Harris Newmark, a ravenous mob made up of the ‘scum and dregs of the city’ took it from there. Chinese homes and businesses were ransacked and robbed. In total, 19 Chinese members of the community were lynched including Dr. Gene Tung. The beloved doctor begged for his life in both English and Spanish. He was heartlessly strung up and all his valuables were taken.[viii] Of the 19 bodies examined, an eyewitness claimed that only one of them deserved his fate. A sense of foreboding hung heavily in the air over the ‘City of Angels’.
Members of the Sheriff’s office and City Police were finally able to disperse the crowd before they burned Chinatown to the ground. Police Officer Emil Harris saved several Chinese residents from being lynched in addition to preventing fires from being set. Other individuals that day who were reputed to have helped stem the riot were Sheriff Burns, Judge Widney, Cameron E. Thom, R. M. Widney, James Goldworthy, John G. Downey & H. C. Austin. In the end, justice was not served on the perpetrators. Most of the witnesses were part of the mob and those who were not had much to fear about testifying against proven murderers who were still walking free. In the end, a half-dozen received short sentences and that was it.[ix]
The savagery on Calle de los Negros shocked the world. The Chinese Government issued a vigorous protest and the story pushed the Great Chicago Fire to page-2 news. The Alley was now a mark of shame that the city could no longer hide. Over the years, hundreds of lives are thought to have been lost on that short track and it remained an unsavory place through the 1880s and 1890s.
With the expansion of Los Angeles Street, big plans were in the works and adjustments were made. Buildings were leveled and a street was erased. By the 1940’s it existed on local road maps in name only. By the 1950s all traces of the wickedest street in the Old West were gone.
*The blue band is the actual Calle de los Negros while the red outlines show where its adobes once stood. The street runs North/South with the Plaza and Olivera Street to the right.
I was standing at the northwest corner of Los Angeles and Arcadia street at the site where the Coronel adobe once stood. The essence of pipe smoke hung in the air as someone strummed 1850’s folk songs on a guitar. I thought of the brave frontiersman, noble vaquero, shifty gamblers, villainous murderers, and the many good working people who did not deserve their brutal fates. The sound of jingling spurs was lost in the resonance of a passing Camaro. A young, smiling father rounded the corner with his daughter. He was teaching her Mandarin as they discussed the last Avengers film. For a moment, I thought I saw Police Officer Emil Harris smiling at them as they went by. I looked again but he was gone. I was just a man walking down a sidewalk in a modern city. That evening, I thought about the many people whose legacies have become the foundation on which our communities now stand. In some cases, nothing remains of places that were legendary in their time. Still, if you are open to listening beyond the din and seeing the outline of old roads or lost buildings beneath modern streets, then you are ready to find the hidden history beneath your feet.
(*Editor’s note: Despite the word's historic use, the proverbial ‘N-word’ is considered a demeaning and offensive term so I have chosen to handle it like any other profane word on this site by alluding to it without saying it.)
For more information on the oldest section of LA, visit the Pueblo de Los Angeles website: https://elpueblo.lacity.org/
[i] A ’bit’ is an archaic reference to 12 ½ ₵ or one-eighth of a Spanish Dollar. Ergo 4-bits make 50₵. A quarter eagle is a $2.50 US gold piece.
[ii] $50 gold pieces made by various firms in Northern California during the California gold rush. [iii] Traditional Mexican Rope Dance, later adopted by American cowboys. [iv] Hand cranked string instrument [v] Human waste from within outhouses [vi] 19th century slang term for drinking [vii] March 24, 1877 edition of the Los Angeles Express [viii] Sixty Years in Southern California 1853-1913, Harris Newmark p. 432 [ix] Ibid. p. 435